Winter is ending with the budburst of trees – The Star Press

Some early signs of spring are obvious and welcome: the chattering of red-winged blackbirds among the cattails, the chirping of spring peeper frogs in the woods, or the sight of a robin skittering across the yard in search of earthworms. Other signs, like the swelling tree buds, are subtler.
Local wildlife survive winter by migrating, hibernating, or toughing it out. Trees, however, go dormant, a process triggered in the fall by decreasing daylight. Leaves drop, branches harden off, and the flow of water and sugars subsides.
A midwinter warm spell does not wake a tree from dormancy. Trees wait until they have experienced enough chilling hours and then forcing hours (when they warm up) before beginning the process of waking from dormancy. These environmental cues, chilling and forcing, alter the balance of hormones that keep a tree dormant or promote growth. This evolutionary process helps a tree to take advantage of favorable spring growing conditions while avoiding tissue damage from late frosts.
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By the time a tree drops its leaves in the fall, the buds are already formed and packaged up in a protective armor of scales. When the sap rises in the spring from the tree’s roots to its branches, buds swell, and scales fall off. The leaves, stem, and flowers unfurl from the bud, releasing pollen.
Scientists and citizens across the world have been keeping a record of when trees’ buds begin to burst. Henry David Thoreau started tracking the leafing-out of plants in the 1850s around Walden Pond. Aldo Leopold kept notes on plants and wildlife across Wisconsin from 1945-1999.  This study of how environmental factors affect plant and animal life cycles is called phenology. 
Project Budburst is tracking data on over 250 plants across the United States to examine how our warming planet is affecting the phenology of plants. By engaging citizens, schools, and scientists, a large database is developing. 
Trees are waking earlier from dormancy today than they did in Thoreau and Leopold’s time. We know certain parts of our earth are warming more quickly than others. The migration of birds and the life cycle of insects are not changing as quickly to coincide with this earlier budburst.
Will there be enough insects to pollinate the earlier blooms of the trees? How will this affect the critical food source for birds traveling from Central and South America? Scientists currently can only hypothesize about the repercussions of climate change on the phenology of trees. Plants and insects rely heavily on each other and are the base of our entire ecological food web.
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If you are looking for a late winter/early spring nature activity, take a walk around your house or a forest and look closely at the buds on the branches of trees and shrubs. Do they look different? Spring awakening is different for each tree species. Maple, cherry, and buckeye trees tend to leaf-out earlier than oak, hickory, walnut, and ash trees. Take pictures or notes about how they differ, both among species or by location. Are the trees facing the south further along? Keep track of how and when they change throughout the spring.
As winter ends and spring approaches, one of the sure signs is budding trees. It is often overlooked in favor of blooming wildflowers on a forest floor, but no less interesting, beautiful, and critical to the health of wildlife.
Julie Borgmann is the executive director of Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her passion is preserving habitats where people and wildlife can thrive.